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Information Overload: How much is too much?

Yulia Grigoryeva Id stockfoto: 269516258

by Claire Bown

 I was reading ‘Are You Teaching Content or Teaching Thought?’ the other day and it really struck a chord with me.

I first started out as a Tour Manager for Cosmos in the 1990s, trained to spill out as much information as possible over the microphone of a coach and during walking tours all over Europe. I was a ‘one-way drone fest’ (as Nina Simon hilariously puts it here ). I had a lot of fun researching the content to share with my visitors and injected humour and anecdotes where possible, but the possibilities of interactions and audience participation were limited given the logistics of coach travel. I wonder how much of what I told them they actually remembered when they returned home?

Later I worked in educational travel for a number of years and one of my responsibilities was to select, monitor and evaluate city guides in various European capitals (Amsterdam was one of them). This was no-mean feat as city guides, especially those who have had to pass an exam to register (like the meticulous training required to become one of the UK’s Blue Badge Guides) love to share their knowledge with you. Unfortunately, the flow of such information can all to often be at such a rate and volume as to leave participants uninterested and bored. I recall many conversations where I suggested to the guide in question that the transmission of such volumes of information wasn’t working for our students and that a ‘less is more’ approach interspersed with questions and activities would work better. The response was usually along the lines of ‘I have spent eons learning all this information, therefore it’s my duty to pass on my knowledge’.

Fast-forward a few years and I am in the same situation. As a museum educator, I understand the delicate balance between selective content inclusion and information overload. Traditional, didactic lecture-style guided tours or ‘walk and talk ‘ tours with an expert museum guide are still all-to-common and a standard way of ‘presenting’ the museum to the public. There seems to be a strong need to cover and provide certain content, facts and information for visitors. Many museums are now working hard at training their docents to introduce more participative, inquiry-led strategies but reducing the actual content or information or thinking about when to add it is rarely talked about.

What if we took this burden away? What if we could ‘frame’ the content in a different way? What if we could include great content but not make the programme or tour dependent upon it?

I have talked before about creating a more learner-centered experience with opportunities for critical and creative thinking through the use of elements from Visible Thinking. When used in a museum context, the emphasis is shifted away from providing information and content. I am not advocating here for a approach that prohibits the addition of content (like, for example, with Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS). I work frequently with VTS and believe it has wonderful applications in some but not all contexts), rather the careful addition of information in small amounts and at appropriate times, for example, by responding to questions from the participants.

In a museum tour there are appropriate and indeed important moments when educators can offer layers of content to extend the discussion further to open up new lines of inquiry. Educators who work in a more inquiry-led way will all recognise that moment when the discussion starts to dry up. You can at this point decide to either add another question or to take the discussion somewhere else by adding some content: ‘What if I was to say that the artist…..?’ Factual information can open up new lines of inquiry and give the object discussion new life and vigour.

Most people are likely to forget information when they are not challenged to think about it or when they are not given the opportunity to make connections between new and prior knowledge. We know lecturing only leads to about 5% information retention and that people learn best when they are actively involved in the learning process, yet the traditional lecture-style museum guide still exists.

With our private and family tours at Thinking Museum, we think carefully about what content is the most relevant to a particular group and how and when that information should be shared. There is a good balance to be struck between offering thematic content and a method of delivery that is flexible and forward-thinking in its approach. We’re looking to find it.

To continue the discussion or for more information on private and family museum tours, our range of training courses and Visible Thinking in the museum, please contact us to chat.

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